“It is not possible that a government can last long under these circumstances,” Madison concluded.
In her book “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788,” the historian Pauline Maier quotes a nearly despondent George Washington who, in a letter to his former aide-de-camp David Humphreys, wrote that “I am really mortified beyond expression that in the moment of Acknowledged Independence we should, by our conduct, verify the predictions of our transatlantic foe, & render ourselves ridiculous & contemptible in the eyes of all Europe.”
The Confederation Congress tried to reform itself. “In August 1786, after months of debate, a Grand Committee of Congress proposed a series of confederation reforms,” writes the historian George William Van Cleve in “We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution,” “but political gridlock prevented any action on them.”
Despite the obvious problems at hand, many Americans were skeptical of making any major changes to the structure of the national government. You can see some of the substance of that opposition in the anti-Federalist critique of the Constitution.
“Both reason and experience prove, that so extensive a territory as that of the United States, including such a variety of climates, productions, interests; and so great difference of manners, habits, and customs; cannot be governed in freedom — until formed in states, sovereign, sub modo, and confederated for the common good,” wrote the Virginia anti-Federalist Richard Henry Lee in a 1788 letter to Samuel Adams, expressing a core sentiment behind the articles.
Beset by overlapping social, political and economic crises, paralyzed by stalemate and unable to reform itself, the United States under the articles was a failure. And yet, the Confederation Congress would endure for another year after 1787 as Americans debated a new constitution. The important point, however, is what it took to get to a place where those elites could agree that something must be done: internal rebellion, state failure and foreign conflict. To agree to something new, the country had to be pushed to a breaking point.
More than a few scholars have written books calling for a new Constitution or at least profound constitutional reform. I have read a few, and they all hit the same notes: that our government is almost hopelessly gridlocked; that Congress has yielded its influence to both a powerful executive and an unaccountable judiciary; and that extreme gerrymandering in the House and gross malapportionment in the Senate makes a mockery of the ideal of political equality.
But if the story of the Articles of Confederation tells us anything, it is that these flaws (assuming one views them as flaws) are not in themselves enough to prompt change. What will bring change — or at least, the possibility of change — is when those flaws render the country too sclerotic and dysfunctional to tackle its most existential challenges.